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Are You Ready for Your Close-Up?

A new look at cameras in the classroom

December 11, 2014
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The idea of putting cameras in the classroom may trigger an instant allergic reaction, conjuring Orwellian nightmares about privacy breakdowns and intrusive bureaucracy. But what if the camera was actually controlled not by Big Brother (or Big Principal) but by the teacher, and what if it was turned on only when she wanted to record a lesson to submit for her performance review? What if these recorded videos took the place of the dreaded principal drop-in — the bread and butter of today’s obligatory and not-often-illuminating classroom observation process?

With the Best Foot Forward project, the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard is testing what it hopes is a better way to conduct classroom observations, making the process more valuable for teachers and administrators. The study involves more than 500 teachers in a wide variety of states and districts, and what it has found so far is promising. Compared to teachers who received in-person observations, teachers who recorded and submitted video observations reported that their post-observation conversations were less frequently adversarial. Administrators using the videos said much the same thing. Teachers found the observation process more collaborative and helpful; administrators said it allowed them to provide more meaningful, specific feedback.

One criticism leveled at the project is that administrators will see only the very best of what teachers have to offer, not a realistic approximation of what happens in the classroom every day. But the researchers, including faculty director Tom Kane and project director Miriam Greenberg, don’t mind ceding the point. Even if you accept it as true, they say, shouldn’t everyone be judged on their best day? There is still a very distinct grading of people that is possible even when everyone is showing themselves at their best.

And there is a side benefit: Teachers can share these videos with colleagues, opening the door to a new kind of collaboration and a different model of professional development. There is a lot of teaching innovation out there, and we should want it to be shared, not locked up within the walls of individual classrooms.

There is nothing perfect about teacher evaluation, but can this new solution get us to a better place? It’s probably too early to know whether this is a game-changer, but the promise is intriguing.

About the Author

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Bari Walsh
Bari Walsh is the senior editor of Usable Knowledge.
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